Directed by: Ken Loach
Written by: Ken Loach, Barry Hines & Tony Garnett
Based on the novel “A Kestrel for a Knave” by Barry Hines
Cast: David Bradley, Freddie Fletcher, Lynne Perrie, Colin Welland, Brian Glover
Run Time: 1 Hour and 52 Minutes
Growing up in America you are told that no matter what your situation in life is, you can rise above it and pursue your American Dream. After watching the film “Kes” I am not sure if our neighbors across the pond in England share this sentiment. Ken Loach’s adaptation of the Barry Hines novel “A Kestrel for a Knave,” is a quiet, bleak, coming of age story that in the style of the Italian Neorealism films show us that life is not always fair or filled with happy endings.
15-year old Billy Casper (David Bradley) is a young man from a working class neighborhood in Yorkshire whose life situation does not look very good. He is the product of a broken home, he is beaten physically and verbally by his step brother Judd and he is bullied at school. In addition Billy is also a trouble maker. He smokes, shoplifts and has had previous run-in’s with the law. All Billy knows is that he doesn’t want to end up working in a coal mine like his step brother. However he has no idea of what he wants to do with his life and no real prospects. The only good thing Billy has in his life is a pet Kestrel he finds, which he names Kes. In raising Kes Billy is able to find some kind of peace in his troubled life.
As a movie fan I enjoy a wide variety of films but find myself drawn towards small scale character-driven stories. Judging the plot synopsis I had a feeling I was going to like “Kes” and while not an easy film to watch I thought it was a very effective slice-of-life drama. It reminded me of the Jake Gyllenhaal film “October Sky” in that both films are about young men that want to escape the fate of having to work in a coal mine.
However thematically speaking “Kes” is a much different film than “October Sky.” In “October Sky’ it seems there is a possibility the main character Homer will escape his situation. “Kes” on the other hand is not so enthusiastic about its protagonist. When Billy is being interviewed by a guidance counselor about his future job prospects and he cannot give an answer as to what he wants to do, you fear for the kid. The future does not look bright for young Billy. At its heart “Kes” is about the transition from childhood to adulthood, albeit the subject matter is handled in a much bleaker way than we see in American films.
To put the film into some sort of context, director Ken Loach is known for working in the Social Realism art style, which is dedicated to showing the struggles of working class people. These films, like the Italian neo-realist movement from the 40’s-50’s, are unafraid to show viewers the harshnesses and realities of life. “Kes” serves as a prime example of the Social Realism style. I have to wonder life was like in Yorkshire in the 60’s that the film is so bleak and pessimistic. Perhaps the situation was so bad that people felt they couldn’t escape their situation. I imagine parallels between those kids in Yorkshire and children in low-income neighborhoods here in America.
If there are problems with the films I found that the story flounders around in places. Pace is a little slow but that ultimately didn’t bother me too much. In addition the accents can be hard to understand at times. There were moments that I wished there was a subtitle option. Because of the language there was one point in the film where I was not sure what was going on and I had to read a plot synopsis online to figure out what was going on.
“Kes” has earned a reputation as one of the greatest British films of all time. It’s number seven on the British Film Institute’s Top Ten British Films and also holds a place on the Institute’s List of 50 films you should see the by the age of 14. I would agree that the film certainly deserves this reputation. In fact I think that certain parts of America could totally relate to the story of a boy who feels trapped in his social situation and finds one little thing that makes his life suck less. Certainly not a film that will probably be watched over and over again. However it is a film that I think should be watched at least once. Very highly recommended!